Thursday, November 8, 2007

Drag Racing for Fun and Profit

Again, Charlie Hall was kind enough to fill in some gaps in an area with which he was more familiar, having participated in the first organized events and later with his Allison powered dragster. I attempted to include the lore surrounding his acquisition of that car from its second owner and got it all “inaccurate and mixed up”. He rightly told me that he wasn’t going to write my memoir for me, stating that these were my memories not his. His marginal notes were spiced with “bullshit” and other terse comments along with valuable corrections. Charlie, now in his eighties, has a keen mind and a reliable memory.

Drag Racing

The economy in Tucson was not prosperous in the best of times. Those who liked their cars often found it frustrating to read Hot Rod Magazine and see what people with plenty of resources could and did accomplish The idea of putting a V-8 in a Model A and have your own world beater had already past.

We burned cheap gas “buzzing the stem” on weekends and at the witching hour, head out E. Speedway to the favorite hangout, You had to have what today is called “bling”. You had to have those cool finned heads, those multiple carburetor manifolds, those chrome headers, if only for the show. The “show,” for want of a better name would gather at the edge of the parking lot of the Polar Bar drive in on E. Speedway. We’d all drift in and parade before the rows of cars with their window trays loaded with sundaes, milk shakes and burgers. Of course, it wasn’t cool to sit in the car and eat, so we’d congregate inside, taking over one or more booths. After a while, we’d relocate around the cars, discussing the virtues of the latest efforts at extracting more performance out of the mill. It was always hoped that a couple of rivals would agree to a “choose”. This would be the prelude to the rendezvous along a stretch of desert road known as the Mount Lemmon cutoff, a straight section of two lane about three miles long from the base of the mountainto the eastern end of Tanque Verde Road. The distance afforded engines to wind out to ballistic revs. No classes, just “run what ya brung”. Rarely someone would volunteer to act as lookout for the cops, while the troops raced up and down the road using cattle guards for finish lines. Usually, when the cops arrived down the road, the first people to see them would hit the road and alarm the rest. There were numerous dirt trails crisscrossing the desert and they were put to use by everyone scrambling at the indication that the cops were on their way. The local scene didn’t get into organized drag racing until the law effectively shut down our fun and games on the Mount Lemmon cutoff.

There existed an abandoned emergency airstrip near the little cotton farming town of Marana, twenty miles out on the road to Phoenix. It consisted of a 3/4 mile square of asphalt out in the desert. It was perfect. There needed to be a
timing stand and some delineation of the drag strip. Charlie Hall did the timing of the trap speed. There wasn’t any elapsed time recorded but we didn’t really appreciate elapsed times in those days. Charlie had a chart that converted trap times to miles per hour and the stopwatches were triggered by air hoses just like those that once crossed the driveways of service stations. The timing station was in the back of a ’42 Lincoln 7 passenger limo, where Charlie and Jim Cassel read
the stop watches and recorded the speeds. It proved to be an unfailing system, never missing a run.

When it was realized that 3/4 mile wasn’t enough room for a drag strip and runoff room for the faster cars, it was deemed necessary to look for another venue. A timing association with some legal status was formed, opening for competition at Davis-Monthan AFB on the near east side of town. The equipmentincluded trap timing lights, (which were reliable about 50% of the time at first) and elapsed time lights and eventually a real “Xmas tree” starting signal. Talk aboutbig time! Charlie Hall, in his inimitable way, admired the concept that if some is good, more is better, and while we’re at it, why not go for the gold, or in this case the green? He had been an admirer of the unconventional Art Arfons, a drag racer from Akron, Ohio, who, with his brother Walt built a series of a dozen dragsters and land speed record attempt cars powered by the most powerful engines they could lay their hands on at the local surplus yard, calling the cars “Green Monster.” The one that Charlie acquired was one of a series of Allison 1710 cu. in. V-12 aircraft engine powered cars before J-79 jets became Arfon’s engine of choice to power his crowd-pleasing dragsters. Charlie traveled to the National Hot Rod Association Nationals in 1958 at Oklahoma City to check out the car, which had been campaigned by its second owner, Lee Pendleton. This Green Monster had proved its mettle earlier with quarter mile speeds in excess of 150 mph. There is a picture in Hot Rod Magazine showing the car competing with a conventional dragster, and spewing smoke off its tires. Charlie told me that the picture cropped off the finish line, which was only a few yards away. Charlie towed it home, racing it a number of times at the Tucson Dragway. He wrote me his last run netted a speed of 160 miles per hour with one wheel driving
and a broken axle. He proceeded to re-engineer the drive line, clutch and controls, tidy up the square tube chassis, fix the bodywork and paint it over a period of several years. He bought a new trailer and a short wheelbase GMC tractor to pull it. The result was far removed from the basket case of a racer that he towed home from Oklahoma City.
At long last, the project was complete, the car loaded and on its way to Marana for a test run. Out on the highway, not far from the turn off, the rig started fishtailing uncontrollably and ended in a ditch. Once back in the garage it remained, unrepaired for perhaps ten or more years. Not liking to leave a project in such a state, Charlie repaired the damage and parked it, where it remains to this day. Still, while it was in the process of getting shaped up,

Charlie’s Green Monster in its fully realized glory. Charlie could drive the monster on the street with perfect docile behavior, even driving it up onto the trailer. He told me it rode like a Cadillac.

Getting to Know Speed-Sport

Two guys who knew each other from school days, Lyle Fisher and Red Greth, had been campaigning in a fuel roadster called the Speed Sport Special. Things had progressed out of the Ford flat head hot rod to the blown injected 354 cu. in.
Chrysler Hemi engines and trap speeds seen by “rail jobs” which were stock Ford frame rails with no bodies turning 112 mph became tubular chassis with fiberglass noses on ‘27 T bodies with the driver sitting where the engine used to be and a thundering hemi hooked directly to the differential. This was the Speed Sport Special, which flashed across the line at over 180 mph with an ET of 8.2 seconds-a world record in those days

Under that paint was a flowered fabric saturated with resin-The AHRA A Fuel Roadster record holding Speed Sport Special-affectionately called “Old Noisy”.

When I returned to the scene in 1961, Red and Lyle were still at it, though now family men, as was I and running in top fuel dragster class and in super stock class having gained a sponsorship from local Dodge dealer, Bill Breck. We wereall on hand when they took delivery of the ’61 Dodge super stock, which was a totally stripped down four-door with a 426 cu. in. wedge head V8 with a snake pit of intake and exhaust manifolds as a starting point. We were all given a demo ride down Wilmot road by Lee (Springshoe) Seagondollar, one of the Speed-Sport crew, the six of us pushed back in the cheap seat cushions as the stock tires billowed smoke.

In May of 1961, the Speed Sport team were racing at Beeline Dragstrip in Phoenix where they met a couple of engineers from AiResearch Corporation, a defense contractor making jet engine starters. These guys told Fisher and Greth that all the torque produced by a big fuel burning hemi could be produced by a fifty pound jet engine starter their company produced and suggested that one

Don Sullivan and Lee Seagondollar

Turbine mounted to transmission case

Fabricating the tank supports

Speed Sport IV getting charged up

or more of these starters could power a dragster with spectacular results. The boys were skeptical but interested and soon a chassis was fabricated to serve as a test bed. Don Sullivan, an old friend and engineer joined the team with a design for a transmission and motor mount. This consisted of a hatbox shaped case with mounts for three starters and chain drives to an output shaft, which connected to a differential. No clutch was needed because all the driver does is turn on a switch and hit the throttle. The first efforts were only promising. Fifty yards with a shower of snow out the exhausts-much like a fire extinguisher. After some discussion with the AiResearch team, it was decided to use another type of starter, one with a gas combuster, which increased the output substantially while eliminating the snowstorm.

By the time an article I wrote was printed in the September issue of Car Life magazine, it had turned in an 8.75 e.t. and a trap speed of 161 mph. It was hoped that with an aerodynamic body, which I volunteered to design and which subsequently built in California, speeds would increase. In the interim, Fisher andGreth took the car to the NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis where they did daily demonstration runs, smoking the tires the whole length of the quarter. It wasn’t the crowd pleaser hoped for, because it didn’t make any noise-smoke, yes, but whisper quiet. The drill for piloting this car contrasted with conventional
dragsters in every way. After the tanks were pumped up using the borrowed compressor, the car was pushed to the starting line where the crew checked all systems. Red Greth stood by in his metallic racing suit, pulling on his gloves and getting last minute input from Don Sullivan. He then sat down, buckled his harness, flipped an arming switch, a run switch and opened the throttle. Smoke immediately began boiling off the slicks and he rocketed down the strip, trailed by the crew car. Nothing like “Old Noisy”

Speed Sport IV, Going!.

Speed Sport IV, Gone!

First demo run at the Tucson Dragway, June, 1962. A strip record set at 8.75” e.t. and a trap speed of 161 mph. With more control over the wheelspin it could have been much quicker, but more development was needed for the control system.

Clipping from the Arizona Daily Star showing the car in its new bodywork.

I hung around Fisher’s garage off and on as the season moved on through the summer and fall. The turbine car had teething problems. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it froze up after an eighth of a mile. While the engineers went back to the drawing board to correct the problems, attention was focused on the fueler and on the super stocker. Lyle and Red could disassemble the dragster, freshen up the engine and whatever else was needed in the time poor Seagondollar was able to pull the engine out of the Bill Breck Dodge. It made one wonder why anyone would seriously take one of these cars to the drags. The intake manifold and the headers were immense and were hard to get wrenches around all the bodywork.

This is similar to the Bill Breck Dodge super stocker which Lee Seagondollar piloted to a best time of 12.8 e.t. and speed of 118 mph-not quite as fast as the Ramcharger Dodges who went on to win the NHRA championship in 1963-65.

Chrysler had come up with the daddy of all intake manifolds designed to produce great amounts of torque. One four-barrel located on the right side would feed the cylinder bank on the left and another carb on the left would feed the bank on the
right, the branches crossing like hands folded in prayer. The exhaust came out under the fender, now elevated by the suspension, which purportedly effected a “weight shift” upon acceleration. The rear suspension was another example of
overkill. Most people approached this problem by installing a set of Tractionmaster torque arms. These guys went with a design that involved having the axle housing free to rotate. This was to eliminate spring wind-up when torque was applied. The axle housing was held solidly by the massive torque arms which were pivoted in front of the spring mount. The hope was when the axle attempted to rotate upward as the car moved forward, this force would be transferred via the torque arms against the chassis, lifting the weight of the car in reaction. Like most attempts to harness the power of these 426 cu. in. engines, extreme measures were tried first and gradually, people found that less and less was needed. In the case of torque reaction, simple stiffening of the front half of the leaf springs and good shock placement took care of the problem of wheel hop. Hot cars today can pull 13 second e.t.s pretty much out of the box. Lee managed a 12.8 e.t. at 118 mph, a good showing for the time, I recall. I think Lee had about as much super-stock racing in that season to last a lifetime and Bill Breck Dodge was probably not getting the exposure he hoped for, because the car wasn’t toured much. Lyle and Red were friends with a lot of the biggest names in racing. When they raced the roadster, Chris Karamesines of Chicago stayed at Lyle’s house when he was in town. Chris had the hottest fuel dragster in the Midwest at the time.

Don Garlits appeared at the Tucson Dragway with the legendary “Swamp Rat” fuel dragster while I was working at KGUN-TV and the boys had him bring it tothe station for a live broadcast of the news. That caused quite a bit of excitement.Soon after that I got a job offer in California and we departed the Tucson scene.


Joe Gest said...

I would like to know if a mechanic named Joe Gest from Midlothian worked on the Speed Sport IV? At one time a couple of pictures were in my mothers house Alice Gest, but have now disappeared. I called it the rocket car because one of the pictures was taken from the rear and showed the exhausts. Talked to Robert Vodnik, found out his daughter was married to my cousin. And he gave me a couple of names to track down this picture on your website. Thanks.

Bearsup said...

I don't remember the name Joe Gest, but I'm an old man now. Of course I knew Bobby Vodnik as we "sucked up" a few pancakes together when he, Lyle, Red and I took the old slingshot to California in the early '60's.

Lee "Springshoe" Seagondollar

Joe Gest said...

Lee, Give me a call at 708-828-0528. I have Bobby and Sarah Vodnick's number in Oak Forest. They are the grandparents of my cousin Gary, his kids. Check out this video of a 8mm i found in my mother's house. I believe its the red car you have here.

joe gest

Bearsup said...

Hi Joe—

I’m very late in replying to your post. Red and I have eaten a few tacos together in the last 12 months, but I will contact you. I can’t get your YouTube link to work.

Lee (Springshoe)

Joe Gest said...

lee, I will have to repost the video, i reworked my youtube channel and it got deleted. My father took video of the speed sport i believe. Couldnt get a response from Red at all. In all of my mothers belongings there was a close up picture of the pipescof the AiResearch Corporation car. When she passed I couldnt find those pictures. But i remember the tanks on the car. Very Impressive. Joe